Video: Identity theft on wheels

By Peter Alexander Correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/9/2005 7:49:55 PM ET 2005-06-09T23:49:55

LOS ANGELES — All Sharon Lesniak has left of her dream car is the license plate. Her Cadillac Escalade became her nightmare when police impounded it.

"You definitely feel like a victim," says Lesniak. "Two vehicles with the same VIN number and one of them was stolen and they thought it was mine."

She paid a reputable Michigan dealer $52,000 cash for the SUV, unaware it was one of an estimated 50,000 "cloned" cars on the road right now.

Investigators confirmed Sharon's car was stolen and sold with a copied VIN, or vehicle identification number. That 17-digit code is your car's everything — essentially its fingerprint, DNA and Social Security number combined.  It's located on the driver's side of the dashboard near the windshield, and no two VINs should be identical.

If thieves tried to sell a stolen car with its own VIN number, they'd get caught. Instead, they often clone the VIN from a similar make and model, then forge new documents — including fake titles — and re-register the stolen car in another state, selling it as legitimate.

"It is high profit and very, very low risk," says Linda Lewis-Pickett with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. "And the ability or the chance of getting caught is really slim to none."

Why?

The departments of motor vehicles in only six states — Arizona, Indiana, Kentucky, South Dakota, Tennessee and Virginia — share title information. Another eight — Arkansas, Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio, Nevada, New Mexico, Washington and Wisconsin — are expected to join the network by the end of the year.

Critics are calling for a nationwide title-tracking system.

"I think you could cut the auto theft rate in the entire country if the DMV databases talk to each other," says Les Craven, a detective with Florida’s Miami-Dade County Police Department.

But what about people who really do own their cars, whose VINs are copied?

People like Rosie and Frank Martin have a problem, too.

"Somebody else was driving their car with our VIN number," says Rosie.

When they tried to sell their GMC Yuko Denali, they couldn't. The Florida DMV said their VIN was registered to another car.

It took them weeks to prove theirs was legit and the other car stolen.

Call it the "attack of the clones" — it's a whole new kind of identity theft — on wheels.

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